I traveled in India for about two months from August to September 2008, before heading for Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. For more on Iran, please visit my site: couchsurfingiran.blogspot.com
"Dinner with the Commissioner" - Jodhpur, Rajasthan
When Arvind, my Couchsurfing host in Jodhpur, a city of 1.2 million located in the western state of Rajasthan, found out that I was invited to dinner with the Kiran Soni Gupta, he was amazed. He'd seen her name mentioned in local newspapers. At the time, I had no idea that she was the District Commissioner of Jodhpur, maybe the equivalent to being mayor of a city. At the time, she was just an interesting profile on Couchsurfing, who sounded like she was involved in good work regarding women's empowerment and poverty relief.
At first, we weren't sure if he should come along to dinner. I offered to call, but he rejected the idea firmly. But after his brother-in-law, who worked with her, vouched for her character, he decided to come and meet her, planning to then excuse himself from dinner. Excitedly, we washed and changed into our best clothes, before riding out by motorcycle to her house.
"Commissioner's House, Regency Road," she had told me, when I asked how to get to her place. "Everybody knows it."
The guards opened the gate, revealing a lush, shaded residency, redolent of Indian civil service opulence. It was grand by Western standards, positively other-worldly compared to regular Indian housing. We were seated in the waiting room, filled with Kiran's own artwork, images of her with George Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank, Amartya Sen and other notable figures in international poverty relief, and a collection of degrees and awards. One of Kiran's personal servants brought out two glasses of water. After taking them off of the platter, the servant stood there awkwardly, bent half over, motionless. His pose resembled that of a crooked flamingo, if flamingos held silver platters. It took us a moment to realize that he would wait in that very position until we returned the glasses to the platter.
We knew that the Commissioner herself was coming when another servant returned to place three cell phones on a sofa. He lined them up precisely; parallel to each other, with one separated from the other two, before leaving the room. Arvind and I looked at each other incredulously, and I fought back a grin at the absurd pomposity of their service. In an earlier time, they probably would have worn penguin suits and bow ties, but in this day and age they were more casually dressed in long-sleeved shirts and trousers.
Soon enough, Kiran herself arrived, along with her 11-year-old son, Vishnu. Despite our initial apprehension, we found her to be incredibly inviting, convincing Arvind to stay for dinner despite his polite protestations. Dinner was suitably immense, with over a dozen different dishes that varied from local Indian to Chinese to Western, from vegetable Manchurians (Indian-Chinese-style veggie meatballs) to penne pasta to daal and chapatti. Kiran was warm and genuine, happy to speak at length about her accomplishments but also asking—and actually considering—our own careers and concerns. Her school-age daughter and son sat with us most of the time, though her husband, District Commissioner of Jaipur, a neighboring city, was not around.
We discussed her decision to return back to India after completing her graduate program at Harvard, while most of her peers choose to take on better-paying jobs in America.
"There's no other job in which I know I can make such a difference in people's lives," she explained. Such a line, so clichéd in the hands of ordinary public servants, sounded so genuine coming from this radiant woman. She also talked of the difficulties involved in getting villagers in Rajasthan—regarded as socially backward by other Indians—to let their girls leave the village to carry on their education.
Remarkably, she hosts and meets Couchsurfers often, despite her busy schedule. Even when away on business, she makes an effort to have some of her servants show guests around town. And beyond us foreigners, she regularly hosts local citizens, such as my own host, Arvind, explaining that "her door is open to everyone." And while elected officials regularly make such claims, I got the feeling that Kiran actually meant it.
On the way home, Arvind was grinning from ear to ear.
"This is the first time I've seen someone from the government like that," he gushed, explaining that all his previous encounters with public servants have been negative.
They normally treat you as if you're below their "dignity," he said.
"If India had more people in government like Kiran, even just 10 percent, this country would be so much better," he gushed.
"Black Town/White Town" - Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu
Arriving in Pondicherry, a former French colonial possession on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, the heart of India's south, brought difficult questions to mind. It is split, historically, into "White Town" and "Black Town," where the French and the locals respectively stayed, and the schism remains stark today. What they now call the French district, is a charming seaside village of neat, elegantly maintained cathedrals, hotels and homes in delicate pastel hues, all built in an architectural style unmistakably French. Its quietude and beauty immediately felt a world away in the Tamil part, split off by Canal Street, which is as loud, crowded and dirty as any Indian town, where beggars constantly hound and a combination of open sewers and piles of rubbish combine to form a smell quite undesirably memorable.
To be in a town in India where you actually want to linger on the street, rather than get to where you're going as quickly as possible, is a rare treat. And so we lingered, taking pictures of glorious overgrown flowers and gliding in zig zag patterns through the French town on our rented bicycles.
But in talking to Judy, who is Chinese-Canadian, about why we enjoyed the French district so much, dark post-colonial thoughts of race and inferiority were difficult to stymie. Were we merely worshipping our former oppressors in preferring their tranquility, their fresh pain au chocolat, or their language, still spoken on its streets? If so, were we acknowledging in some way that French, and with it Western culture, is better than Indian culture? And so that colonialism was in part justified, that India was better under the British, that we yellow and brown people of the Orient are still only playing catch-up to the White man?!
Such a train of increasingly-extreme concerns pored forth, as we sat in the main park of the French town with local Tamils, in a suddenly uneasy leisure. Our multi-cultural Obama-era educations taught us that black is beautiful, and my Caucasian friends often downplay their ethnic heritage as "boring." Yet my time in China and India has exposed, through its white skin-bleaching beauty products and fair-skinned Bollywood and Hong Kong superstars, a distinctly colonial-aping worldview, where if White isn't necessarily superior, it's certainly looked upon with a chip-on-the-shoulder and an ever-present acknowledgement of greatness.
I was reminded of a time walking through Sichuan university, when Ai Yan, a local friend, pointed out the foreign (mostly Western exchange student) dorms, which are significantly better kept and equipped than the ones for Chinese. When I asked why foreigners necessarily got better accommodation, her response was simply:
"Of course they do. They're foreigners."
Later, Judy argued that this wasn't necessarily the case, and that it's a matter of what one is acculturated to like. That being products of Western upbringing, it was natural for us to find the French district and its European heritage more to our liking, though not necessarily superior to India. I wanted to agree with her, looking out across the rocky shore as a homeless woman slept beneath a bronze Gandhi statue. We travelers must constantly check our conclusions: genetics and race as inherent causes should not be tied to culture and history, in considering the differences between two countries. Surely, if anything, the post-colonial era has taught us that much.
But in traveling these stretches of East and South Asia, in observing the relationship between global trade, nationalism and racial identity, I feel like these complex questions of moral righteousness and economic power are easier to rationalize and deconstruct from the Ivory and Corporate Tower, than when living within, or merely passing through, its gross divisions in India.